12 Ways Exercise Will Help You Live Forever

Exercise is one of the best cures for what ails you, from physical weakness to emotional stress. Today lets look at 12 reasons why exercise is (probably) the key to living forever!

Physical Benefits

1. Increases muscle Strength and Elasticity

Lets get this one out of the way now, since it’s the one you’re likely familiar with already. You may know that aerobic activity strengthens your heart and lungs, letting you breathe easier and pump blood more efficiently. On the flip side, and just as important, resistance training using free weights, machines, and other tools will make your skeletal muscles stronger and better able to meet the challenges of your life. Add to this some stretching to hit all the bases, so that your muscles remain supple and you maintain range of motion at every joint.

One of the signs of aging is reduced strength and physical capacity. I’m of the opinion that we can skip that part and just stay awesome forever. Regular strength and cardio training at a moderate intensity will help prevent the degeneration of muscle tissue over time. If you couple that with enough calories to maintain your body weight, you can’t help but keep the power around longer!

Plus how cool is it going to be to have a defined six pack at 80 years old? Answer: pretty freakin’ cool.

2. Improves Balance and Coordination [8]

Proprioception is your cool science word of the day. It basically refers to your ability to balance in different directions and coordinate your movements, and is another thing hit by the Aging Fairy. Here’s the good news: exercising regularly improves balance and coordination!

As your muscles are getting stronger, the neurons that make up your body’s internal communication system get better at doing their job. This means that not only can you balance better simply because you’re stronger, you actually get more coordinated because your brain understands how to do it better! The muscle and cognitive growth involved is one of the many ways your body adapts to stresses, and exercise is a stressor.

3. Makes you more Energetic and Vivacious [7]

It’s been an anecdotal piece of advice for just about forever: working out gives you more energy. Studies in the last decade have all shown this to be true, as well, so it’s not just Fitness Industry Propaganda. But why is this true?

Your body is a pretty crazy machine. The massive number of interlocking mechanisms, structures, processes, and oddities make it a tough nut to crack during research. This is one reason why medical and fitness science can sometimes only make predictions about what will happen in certain situations: the body is just super complicated. Even in all the noise, we can see some pretty specific things happening during exercise that account for feelings of more energy (at least partially):

a. Increased blood flow to skeletal muscles and your brain, making you feel physically stronger.
b. Release of “feel good” hormones like endorphins, making you feel emotionally content.
c. A sense of accomplishment, making you feel worthwhile.

Any of these things alone are pretty cool, but when combined they form the Captain Planet of good moods. (Yes, that was a 90’s cartoon reference. Replace it with Voltron, if you really want.)

4. Promotes Healthy Skin and Hair [11]

Six Pack abs are good, but how about better skin and hair? Studies show that in mice who have been bred to age much faster than normal, regular exercise helped them maintain a healthier body overall. Not only did their muscular and bone systems remain strong, their skin didn’t grey like the sedentary mice and they maintained a healthy coat of fur when the sedentary mice went bald.

Why care about mice? These little guys are used as a pretty good amalgamation of how the human body responds to similar stressors, age being one of them. Other studies have shown similar affects in humans, but the control groups weren’t as controlled. In every case, the study results correlated exercise to improved skin health and appearance, going so far as to equate the skin health of active 60 year old with that of people in their 20’s! The active older group lost less hair due to age-related decline and saw fewer instances of skin-related cancers and issues related to age.

The take away: Lotion can only do some much. Go get some cardio in, too!

Mental Benefits

5. Improves Short and Long Term Memory [1]

I mentioned how crazy-complicated the body is above, but the brain seriously takes the trophy for “Stuff We Still Don’t Really Understand About Ourselves”. One thing we have discovered is that the hippocampus – a part of the brain right in the middle, kind of shaped like a seahorse – plays a big role in turning short term memory into long term memory. Following along with that, some nifty science-types have also found that in people who recently exercised, their performance on some cognitive tests was better after the workout as compared to before. But why only some tests and not others?

Certain parts of the brain do certain things, like our friendly hippocampus. One thing the brain seahorse does is help with facial recognition, and how good you are at that can be tested. Without going into too much detail, facial recognition involves both memory types and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows that the hippocampus lights up like a Christmas tree when you have to do it. Other tests, like associating colors to words, don’t hit that part of the brain.

Finally getting to the point, this all matters because of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). After you exercise, the levels of BDNF in your blood go up significantly, and the mechanism that the hippocampus works on uses BDNF to function. Studies show that a higher concentration of BDNF improves performance on the facial recognition test I mentioned before, which means that exercise directly correlates to better memory performance.

A long chain of ideas to string together, but hey, it’s good stuff. Yay, Science!

6. Helps you Think and React Faster [2]

So, we just talked about the hippocampus and BDNF being good for memory recall. That’s pretty cool, but it also helps with active thinking and reaction time. It’s a two-fer for the ol’ brain seahorse.

Short term memory is also referred to as working memory. It’s the part of your brain that you use to process the information you receive from your senses, which will either be lost or transferred to long term memory. Having a strong working memory is great for processing the information around you, including working with numbers, understanding language, and reacting to danger. Since the hippocampus is getting a boost from increased BDNF after exercise, you are also better able to interact with, and react to, your environment after workout out.

Sure, your legs may feel like jelly, but your brain is being supercharged!

7. Prevents Cognitive Decline [3]

What? The hippocampus again? Yes! It’s a three-fer!

Another one of those age-related declines is in memory and cognition, and as we just saw the hippocampus plays a big role in that. Much like your muscles, your brain can be kept healthy as you age by making it work. All that BDNF being released during your morning jog is not only going to provide benefit right now, it also works as a means of keeping the entire system functioning correctly. Studies show that regular exercise helps prevent the deterioration of the hippocampus over time. This keeps you mentally sharp as you age.

The only downside? You can’t go to the super market without pants and claim senility.

8. Helps your Brain Recover from Injury [9]

Ok, how about something that doesn’t involve the hippocampus? Your brain is one body part that you don’t want to injure, and if you do you want it to heal as quickly and as wholly as possible. Before we said that exercise helps increase levels of BDNF, which is one of several growth factors used by the brain to function. In addition to helping with cognitive ability, these factors also encourage neurogenesis, the process by which neurons are generated from neural stem cells and progenitor cells.

Studies have shown that exercise seems to trigger “gene profiles” – which are like the internal diagrams of what your body can do – that promotes neuroplasticity. This is the process the helps you build or rebuild neuro pathways and synapses in the brain. In case you didn’t know, those are basically the things that let you think.

Emotional Benefits

9. Treats Symptoms of Depression [5]

Not only do the chemicals released during exercise do all kinds of great stuff for your body and brain, they also help your mood significantly. Intervention studies wherein participants suffered from clinical levels of depression have shown that regular exercise helps alleviate these symptoms in both the short and long term.

One of the mechanisms here is the release of endorphins, also sometimes called “feel good chemicals”. These are neurotransmitters that bind to the same receptors as opioids (morphine is a good example) and block pain signals traveling to the brain. This means that as you exercise, you actually feel less pain due to the endorphins streaming through your system.

Since pain is being blocked, you also get more affect from neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are responsible for some pleasurable sensations. Dopamine is one of the chemicals responsible for feelings of reward, arousal and sexual gratification. Serotonin leads to feelings of abundance and fulfillment, which in lower-order animals usually refers only to food. In higher-order animals like humans, it can refer to food, social dominance, and overall happiness.

10. Reduces Stress [4]

Hormones like Cortisol and epinephrine are commonly refereed to as “stress hormones”. These hormones are released when the brain perceives a situation that is potentially dangerous. Long work days, car accidents, fights with your spouse, and just about anything else that makes you feel like you want to rip your hair out is probably introducing stress hormones into your system. Even exercise, to a certain extent, releases these things!

But physical activity also helps reduce stress. As we noted above exercise releases the feel good chemical cocktail that is endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin (among others). This onslaught of awesome serves to reduce overall stress hormone levels and bring you back into balance.

11. Improves Self Image and Self Confidence [6]

Another area where science has given us some great information! Studies show that when you participate in physical activity, you tend to have a better self image and higher self confidence. The mechanism for this isn’t cited, but the fact that exercise makes you feel attractive and accomplished probably plays a role. Keep in mind, too, that humans are primarily social animals and many physical activities are social. The feelings of community and fulfillment one gets from group exercise shouldn’t be understated or overlooked.

12. Helps you Control Anger and Aggression

Much like stress, Anger and Aggression are feelings associated with stress hormones and unfavorable situations. The same mechanism that helps with stress, also helps with anger. Combine the feel good cocktail with an expenditure of energy, and the body gets a one-two punch of aggression-reducing awesomeness.

References:

1. Erickson KI1, Voss MW, Prakash RS, et al. “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21282661

2. Griffin ÉW1, Mullally S, Foley C, Warmington SA, O’Mara SM, Kelly AM.. “Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21722657

3. Intlekofer KA1, Cotman CW. “Exercise counteracts declining hippocampal function in aging and Alzheimer’s disease”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22750524

4. “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety”. http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety

5. Carek PJ1, Laibstain SE, Carek SM. “Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21495519

6. Dorothy L. Schmalz, Glenn D. Deane, Leann L. Birch, Kirsten Krahnstoever Davison. “A Longitudinal Assessment of the Links Between Physical Activity and Self-Esteem in Early Adolescent Non-Hispanic Females”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2562306/

7. Puetz, T. “Psychological Bulletin”, November 2006. News release, University of Georgia.

8. Holm, Inger PT; Fosdahl, Merete Aarsland; Friis, Astrid; et al. “Effect of Neuromuscular Training on Proprioception, Balance, Muscle Strength, and Lower Limb Function in Female Team Handball Players”. http://journals.lww.com/cjsportsmed/Abstract/2004/03000/Effect_of_Neuromuscular_Training_on.6.aspx

9. Carl W. Cotmana, Nicole C. Berchtold. “Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity”. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223602021434

10. Berger, B. G.; Owen, D. R.; Man, F. “A brief review of literature and examination of acute mood benefits of exercise in Czechoslovakian and United States swimmers”. http://www.cabdirect.org/abstracts/19931860420.html;jsessionid=1D04DA939D0E6E08678EE382F7B28743

11. Adeel Safdara, Jacqueline M. Bourgeoisd, Daniel I. Ogborne. “Endurance exercise rescues progeroid aging and induces systemic mitochondrial rejuvenation in mtDNA mutator mice”. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/02/18/1019581108.abstract